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A.O., countrymen have Russia going mad over series

by Slava Malamud /
The Washington Capitals' post-game dressing room is crowded as usual and I am in the middle of one of the scrums – talking snails and butterflies. Countryside wildlife, you see, has a tendency of creeping up into Russian hockey conversations, for such are the intricacies of our puck jargon.

A "butterfly" is how a Russian-speaking goalie, such as Simeon Varlamov, will refer to a softie, and a "snail" is what a slick-skating Russian forward, such as Alexander Semin, will call a 360-degree turn with the puck. I have the enviable task of rendering the insects and the gastropods into the proper English terms for the benefit of my North American colleagues. 

It's the Stanley Cup Playoffs' marquee series, and even those members of the Caps' Russian contingent who are not capable of giving interviews in English are in high demand, forcing Russian hockey writers like myself into moonlighting as interpreters. But my real job this night will involve writing another 3,000-word article on the Capitals, the Penguins and their Russian stars, which will likely make front-page news at home. I can also be quite sure that the next day my editors will be on the phone screaming for more. This at the time the World Championships are being played in Europe – unthinkable!

Yes, Russia has gone certifiably crazy for the Capitals and Alex Ovechkin. The latter's popularity in particular has eclipsed all conceivable limits and has reached the point where it is actually becoming fashionable to hate Alex, if for no other reason than bucking the national trend.

A whole subculture of Penguins fans has sprung apparently overnight, and boy, are they loud in their complaints about the Russian press' perceived pro-Washington bias. They, of course, are in the minority, as the Capitals are quickly becoming Russia's adopted hockey team.

Some dedicated souls will think nothing of getting up at 3 a.m. on a weekday morning to watch a Capitals-Penguins game on a cable network. Others will start their workday by reading up all they can on the series -- which explains my editors' ever-growing demands.

Ovechkin, Varlamov, Fedorov, Semin, Kozlov, Malkin and Gonchar – one could argue that pound for pound, more Russian talent is currently playing in the Eastern Conference semifinal than on the national team at the Worlds (which plays Canada for the gold medal on Sunday). Of course, the fact that this series is turning out to be so unabashedly awesome, with plenty a heroic performance by those Russian players, is a bit of help too.

No wonder the fans are going insane and I am overworked.

Right before Game 1, I get an e-mail that originated from the small town of Uchaly, deep in the Ural mountains. "I love your articles," writes a 29-year-old female, "but I hope you won't be too hard on Sidney Crosby. He is no Malkin, of course, but such a nice kid!"

I promise her to be fair. And then there is a message from a 35-year-old Ukrainian gentleman who writes "God help the Capitals!" and asks me to wish luck to fellow compatriot and Pens' forward Ruslan Fedotenko – all in the same sentence.

I thank him for his contradictory sentiments. Why not? His heart is in the right place.

And so is the collective heart of the world's largest nation, whose hockey-obsessed citizens spend a lot of their time nowadays checking out Ovechkin's shot on goal totals, discussing Malkin's level of mental toughness and hoping like heck Varlamov keeps those pesky "butterflies" out.

Slava Malamud writes about the NHL for Sport Express, the leading daily sports newspaper in Russia.

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